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The Brexit Deal and Britain’s Steep Learning Curve

The Brexit Deal and Britain’s Steep Learning Curve

Stephen Wall (former Permanent Representative of the UK to the EU)

I have always thought of a steep learning curve as being both arduous and fast: you need to learn a lot, and quickly. But, in the case of Brexit, both the Government and public seem to have redefined the term. We, the British people, have climbed steeply, but arduously and stumblingly. And still we climb.

If there was one person who could have led the country differently, it was Theresa May. She was perfectly placed to make a “blood, toil and tears” speech to the nation, accepting the result of the referendum but spelling out the political and economic price we would have to pay. Instead, we were given ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and a vision of Britain’s future relationship with the EU that was all gain and no pain. Remain voters were given short shrift: “a citizen of the world is a citizen of nowhere”. Mrs May instructed her negotiators to complete, not just the exit deal, but the whole of the future relationship with the EU within the period leading to next March. Forced by reality to abandon that stand, the inevitable transition period was thinly disguised as an ‘implementation’ period.

David Davis was appointed as the Government’s chief negotiator to appease the Brexiteers but was kept as far from the real negotiations as he could be. Perhaps that was why, when the Government willingly signed up for the Irish ‘backstop’, Mr Davis did not appear to understand its implications. Now, the Brexiteers blame the EU and the Irish for taking the British at their word when we promised there would be no hard border between north and south.

When the Government first set out their negotiating aims, they asked the EU, in effect, to replicate all the advantages of membership while liberating the UK from its obligations. Mrs May vaunted the fact that the UK would be outside the Customs Union and the Single Market even as she was proposing a complex (and unworkable) tax collection system which was designed to negate the fact that the UK, outside the EU, will be a third country like any other. The Government’s proposals for being outside the Single Market were similar: all the benefits, minus free movement of people. Maybe the leading Brexiteers kidded themselves that this was a realistic negotiating stance. But the Government should have been, as they were not, candid about what could realistically be expected.

Even now, the Prime Minister is being less than candid about the future relationship between Britain and the EU. Of course, the 27 want a close trading relationship with the UK: they have a significant trade surplus to safeguard. But there is nothing in the agreed document on the future negotiations which guarantees the UK the same advantages as we enjoy now. And the future deal on services offers only “substantial sectoral coverage” and keeps open the possibility of “exceptions and limitations as appropriate” to the general principle of free trade. And the UK’s trade in financial services will be subject to our establishing (continuously) the equivalence of our rules. So, what the Government are promising is a worse future for the most important segment of our economy in its most important market, combined with our having to accept without challenge rules which, until now, we helped to author.

So slow has been our steep learning curve that it took Jo Johnson’s resignation to bring home the fact that Mrs May is offering the country two unpalatable options: a future free trade deal with the EU which is a poor relation of what we have now; or a commitment to renew the transition arrangements for as long as no technical solution can be found to the Irish border issue. At least, in the latter case, we would get to stay in the Customs Union and the Single Market, so we would keep our access, albeit with no option but to accept future trading rules set by the EU.

As a believer in representative democracy, rather than democracy by plebiscite, I would like to think that the House of Commons might get us out of this mess. It looks as if there are enough votes to scupper Mrs May’s deal but not yet a strategy, or majority, for an alternative. In our hour of need, the Labour Party is playing Party games, the DUP are showing their mastery of blackmail and the Conservative Government has a gun held to its head by its own irreconcilables, who will happily sacrifice our welfare for their obsession. Of all the ideas around, asking the British people once again whether they wish to remain or leave looks like the least problematic. But it would be anything but straightforward. The question would have to be binary. But to repeat the same question as in 2016 would, if the result were the same, not solve the present conundrum. But is there a majority in the House of Commons to allow us a referendum in which we choose whether to leave on Mrs May’s terms, or to stay?


Stephen Wall was for 35 years a member of the British Diplomatic Service. He was Private Secretary to five British Foreign Secretaries, a Press Officer for Prime Minister Jim Callaghan and Foreign Policy Adviser to Prime Minister John Major. His European experience includes five years as Head of the Foreign Office European Department; two years as Britain’s Ambassador to Portugal; five years as UK Permanent Representative to the EU and four years as EU adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair and Head of the European Secretariat in the Cabinet Office. His book on Britain’s EU policy, ‘A Stranger in Europe’, was published in 2008. He has written The Official History of Britain and the European Community, 1963-1975, published in July 2012. The successor volume (The Tiger Unleashed), covering the Thatcher era, is due to be published later this year. He chairs The Federal Trust (a UK Research Institute) Cumberland Lodge (an educational charity) and Kaleidoscope Trust (which campaigns for LGBT rights overseas).